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PARKatlanta's aggressive ticketing damages public trust

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During a City Council transportation committee meeting in April, Councilman C.T. Martin — in a moment of uncharacteristic clarity — lamented the city's decision to enter into what's become a tumultuous relationship with Duncan Solutions, the agency that now manages the city's parking enforcement and is better known as PARKatlanta.

"We gave [PARKatlanta] the streets, your streets. We gave them our streets, and from the beginning I had a problem with that," Martin said. "The citizens own the streets. They pay for them. We representatives, sometimes we get it wrong. This one we got wrong."

When PARKatlanta took over enforcement duties early this year, the agency made fast foes with the public, who bemoaned the zealous and seemingly arbitrary manner in which tickets were being meted out. Signage was often confusing, didn't reflect the actual rules being enforced, or was absent altogether. And even though City Council had handed over parking enforcement to an outside entity, the city was inundated with citizen complaints.

Of course, it wouldn't have taken an optometrist to help Council see, back in 2009 when it approved the seven-year contract with PARKatlanta, that the partnership would be less than rosy. In the interest of generating much-needed revenue in the short-term, the city's long-term interests were sold to the highest bidder. And even if the road to more efficient parking enforcement — a road lined with more and more parking meters, as well fancy multi-space pay stations — was paved with good intentions, the deal itself was perhaps overly sweet for PARKatlanta. The deal, in turn, can get overly expensive for residents due to the aggressiveness with which PARKatlanta would naturally want to approach the ticketing game.

For the length of the contract, the city will collect $5.5 million a year from PARKatlanta. Any money earned from meters and parking citations beyond that amount is PARKatlanta's to keep, including some $10 million it's been permitted to collect in unpaid fines left over from the era of city-run parking enforcement.

Besides the obvious complications associated with having a private company carry out a formerly municipal function, the blueprint for meter installation and enforcement is based on a 30-year-old ordinance that established the city's 2,500 "managed" parking spaces. What's resulted is a system that ultimately has the potential to do more harm than good.

For instance, the circa-1970s ordinance allowed for meters to be recently installed on Edgewood Avenue in the Old Fourth Ward — and not without a fair share of grumbling. With the arrival of businesses like the Sound Table and Noni's, the corridor has seen a positive resurgence of late. But its status as an entertainment district is still fledgling, and the new parking meters seem counterproductive in that they could discourage people from patronizing the up-and-coming district. The same goes for the Mitchell Street corridor downtown and the Fairlie-Poplar district, where business owners say the installation of meters and ramped-up enforcement have already proven detrimental to their bottom line.

This isn't to say that all parking enforcement is bad. Cars clog the city's streets on a daily basis, and if the prospect of pumping a few bucks into a meter or paying a parking ticket encourages even a few people to bike to their destinations, then everyone is better off. The gripe from the get-go hasn't been about parking enforcement itself, but the ways in which the city and PARKatlanta have gone about it.

Ultimately, the question is what's more important to Atlanta's future: The $5.5 million PARKatlanta will contribute to the city's coffers annually for the next seven years, or the ease — and trust — with which residents and visitors can navigate established and emerging pockets of town? Ideally, the short-term interests of City Hall should never trump the long-term interest of the city as a whole.

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